How Do Opioid Drugs Affect the Brain?

Some people hold the misconception that people abuse opioid drugs simply to feel euphoric. This simplistic view may explain why some experiment with heroin or narcotic painkillers at first. However, as time passes, continued drug use actually changes the structure and function of the brain, creating an addiction.

Let’s explore how these drugs “re-wire” people, what the effects are and why opioids are so highly addictive.

Groundbreaking Brain Research

In the 1970s, Dr. Sol Snyder led a research team at Johns Hopkins University. Their work lead to the discovery of opioid receptors in the brain. This discovery enabled researchers to ask and answer questions about how and why opioids cause euphoria, reduce pain and create physical and psychological dependence.1

Brain Science: How Opioid Receptors Work

When experiencing pleasurable activities, like having sex or eating, we release naturally occurring neurotransmitters that bind to the mu receptors in the brain. The binding action activates the receptors, and chemicals are released that we experience as pleasure. This can elevate our mood and decrease the perception of pain.

Immediate Effects on the Brain from Opioid Drugs

Opioid drugs work on the same brain receptors. Enzymes in the brain convert heroin or prescription painkillers into morphine. The morphine quickly binds to the brain’s opioid receptors.2 This binding action activates the receptors, flooding the brain with large amounts of dopamine. This “rush” causes pain relief and euphoria at much more intense levels than can be naturally produced.

After a period of time, where a steady supply of drugs has consistently created elevated levels of dopamine, the brain adapts and builds tolerance to heroin and/or prescription opioids. Pain thresholds decrease and sensitivity to pain increases. Rather quickly, soon after opioid use begins, overactive pain signals may result.

Consequently, drug users feel the need for more and more opioids just to feel normal. These individuals are now drug-dependent. Addiction has taken hold, and using drugs is no longer voluntary.

Long-term Effects on the Brain from Opioid Drugs

Long-term use of opioids causes changes to the prefrontal cortex and medial temporal lobe of the brain.3 These areas control and regulate long-term memory, decision-making, thought processes and social behaviors.

Brain alterations from long-term opioid use can cause the following behavioral changes:

How Do Opioid Drugs Affect the Brain?– Poor regulation of one’s behaviors
– Impaired emotional processes
– Memory impairment
– Diminished flexibility regarding tasks
– Flawed reasoning skills
– Poor problem-solving skills
– Decreased ability to plan
– Reduced decision-making skills
– Decreased ability to imagine future events and interactions

Opioid Addiction Recovery

Opioid addiction is a challenging dependency to break free from, even when it’s short-term. Changes within the brain can happen quickly, making it more likely a person will use again and again.

Recovery from opioid addiction is possible. There are a number of treatment options available that can help you or a loved one achieve sobriety. Consult with a healthcare professional for information on the different addiction treatment options available, such as inpatient or outpatient rehab.